Like many other genetically modified crops that are still not allowed in many sub-Saharan Africa, GM cotton is only produced in two countries on the continent — Burkina Faso and Sudan.
But as more African countries seek to improve their produce by making them resistant to diseases through GM cotton, which has been produced globally for almost two decades, more countries including Malawi, Nigeria, Ethiopian, Ghana, Swaziland and Cameroon are considering this as an option.
However sector experts are warning against this move to adopt GM cotton and they are saying it might a counterproductive effect on the continent ability to compete with other cotton exporting countries across the world.
“African leaders and cotton producers need to take a close look at how GM cotton has fared in South Africa and Burkina Faso to date, particularly its socioeconomic impact on smallholder farmers,” Haidee Swanby, a senior researcher at the African Centre for Biodiversity said in an opinion piece.
“Scrutiny of actual experiences reveals a tragic tale of crippling debt, appalling market prices and a technology prone to failure in the absence of very specific and onerous management techniques, which are not suited to smallholder production.”
Swanby goes on to say that due to the fact that many African cotton farmers are small-scale and almost fully reliant to rainfall for their cultivation GM cotton cannot do well on their farms.
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For example, in Burkina Faso an attempt to introduce GM cotton failed just after five seasons as farm yield dropped and quality of the cotton fiber harvested fell.
The same thing happened in South Africa and left smallholder farmers in deep debt as local credit institutions collapsed under the burden of unpaid loans.
Even with these background experiments and open field trials with GM Cotton are quickly approaching a stage where commercial release is eminent in most of these African countries and these experts say will hurt small scale farmers who contribute almost half of the cotton exported from Africa.
“There are many obstacles to the birth of a new GM era in Africa, chief among them the fact that this high-end technology is simply not appropriate to resource-poor farmers operating on tiny pieces of land,” Swanby said.
“[Introducing] more expensive technologies that have already proven themselves technologically unsound in a smallholder environment is deeply irresponsible and short-sighted.”
Haidee Swanby opinion piece is based on a more extensive paper titled Cottoning on to the Lie, published by the African Centre for Biodiversity, June 2015